Saturday, September 27, 2014

"Between the Hedges" at Georgia Sets a New Standard for "The Tour"

During my wedding festivities in 2009, I was introduced to my wife's uncle, Ron.  I consider myself to be one of the biggest college football fans on the planet.  Frankly, in my travels around the country, I had yet to find anything but rivals (certainly no one more of a diehard than I).  Well, as I was pulling up to the hotel to drop my dad off from the airport, I saw this black and red car with University of Georgia Bulldogs emblems all over it - Ron's car.  In our first conversation, Ron was drawing from memories of Notre Dame vs. Georgia in the only meeting between the schools in history - a 17-10 Bulldog victory over the Irish in the 1981 Sugar Bowl.  What do you say to that?  "We'll get you next time"...?  Given the SEC's recent dominance, I was likely justified in refraining from any ND-fueled retort.  I walked away from that conversation knowing that I had met my match - at least when it came to being passionate about your team (I've got him beat in overall college football fandom, I think).  That night, he promised me that he would take me to a Georgia game some day.  It took me four years to take him up on the offer.  Boy, I'm glad that I did...

My wife and I took our daughter down to Georgia on September 6, 2013 so that they could hang out with the family and so that I could add "Athens" to my list of big name college football tour stops.  For me, going to these games evokes similar emotions as would a vacation to a place like Hawaii or Europe for most people.  It's like Christmas morning to a kid.  When you wake up, you've got that little tingle of excitement and your muscles start randomly jumping all around - an outlet for an enthusiasm that cannot be contained.  There's nothing quite like it.

Ron and I launched for Athens at 10:30AM for a game with a 4:30 kickoff.  We picked up one of Ron's Georgia-loving buddies, Herman, who brought along with him another Georgia-loving buddy, Phil.  These guys were characters.  This experience was unique.  I had been to Notre Dame with a fellow Irish fan who had dreamed of one day helping the boys "wake up the echoes."  I had been to Ohio State with current college students, all with their current college student mindsets of "let's party and go to the football game."  I had been to Oklahoma with a big Sooner fan around my age and of my same profession and football aficionado-stature.  I had yet to go to a game with a group of gentlemen who had seen and been a part of some of the greatest moments in their team's respective history.  Ron, Herman, and Phil are books of Georgia football lore.  They all know how to tailgate, as well.  At Georgia's awesome "Tailgate Station" - a gated and guarded tailgate community where you buy a grassy parking space for a cool $15,000 - Phil cracked open a Rolling Rock, Herman a bottle of 2 Buck Chuck, Ron an Icehouse, and I a Corona.  We sat there for two hours talking football.  They shared with me some of their favorite Georgia memories, as I absorbed the fact that - for these men - football season is the best part of their year.  Gentlemen, I concur.

Let me share something about Ron.  He's got the greatest mustache in the history of mankind.  Friends of mine still occasionally mention "the guy with the mustache" when talking about my wedding.  Curling out and around into a big loop, it requires mustache wax to keep it in place.  So, we were heading down to the bathroom areas and Ron got stopped by a group of young ladies wanting to have their pictures taken with him (that's one).  On his way back from the bathroom, he got stopped by another group (that's two).  Later, the blonde in her black dress and cowboy boot get-up that had caught everyone at Tailgate Station's attention a time or two throughout the day was standing in line waiting to board the bus to the stadium commented on it (that's three).  I won't repeat his reply.  On our walk from the bus to our seats, three more people commented on his "awesome mustache" (that's four, five, and six).  Six times, someone made mention of that 'stache.  Impressive.

Now, THAT'S a 'stache
Back at Tailgate Station, roughly four hours until kickoff, legendary Georgia coach, Vince Dooley, showed up to sign autographs.  Dooley was the coach for the 1980 National Championship team featuring Hall of Fame running back and 1982 Heisman Trophy winner, Hershel Walker.  He signed my shirt and snapped this picture with me.

Me and Vince's OK to be jealous
If you just said to yourself, "Damn, that's cool," then my reply would be, "You're damn right it was cool!"  That was unique to all my tour stops to date, meeting one of the best coaches in the history of college football.

Tailgate Station allowed Georgia to overtake Ohio State as the best tailgating experience that I've been a part of.  It has the TVs (for the other big games), the easily accessible bathrooms, and a relaxed, gated, and guarded atmosphere for you to enjoy a few pregame brewskis.  To top it off, they brought in excellent, catered food. 

On the bus to the game, the Dawgs faithful cycled through a few of the school's popular chants.  I may have to make "taking the bus" a staple for future tour destinations, particularly for those that house their football stadiums on campus.  The bus rides wind up being an informal tour of the school and its fan base.  I went to N.C. State and our stadium was at an off-campus site.  I didn't much care for that.  Football stadiums (and basketball arenas) should be on campus.  If I started a college, I wouldn't have it any other way.  The University of Georgia sure is a beautiful place on a sunny, late summer afternoon... 

92,746 packed Sanford Stadium that day.  South Carolina came to town for what has become, in recent years, one of college football's most underrated rivalries.  Steve Spurrier, of Florida playing and coaching fame, brought his hatred of Georgia with him to coach the Gamecocks in 2005.  South Carolina has been a thorn in Georgia's side ever since, almost annually disrupting the Bulldog Nation's hopes for an undefeated season.  Though the Dawgs have a 29 game lead in the overall series, the Gamecocks have won four out of the last five.  The one in five?  That's when I was there.  You're welcome, Georgia.

Georgia vs. South Carolina was easily the best game I've ever been to in 12 years of attending college football games.  The Bulldogs used an onside kick in the first quarter to spark a 17-3 lead.  The Gamecocks battled back to draw even.  The eventful first half ended with a Gamecock score right before halftime, tying the score 24-24 at the break.  Georgia dominated the third quarter to take a 34-24 tally into the fourth, but South Carolina came right back to pull within four.  The play of the day came on the next drive for the Dawgs.  Backed deep into their own territory, Georgia looked like they were about to lose momentum when 2014 #1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney came barreling through the line headed for Georgia QB and SEC all-time leading passer, Aaron Murray.  However, Murray rolled to his left and found a wide open Justin Scott-Wesley on a busted coverage for an 85-yard touchdown.  The Georgia defense held the Gamecocks on fourth-and-goal from the 1 on the ensuing drive and then the offense ran the ball down South Carolina's throat for the final 8-minutes of the game to seal the victory. 

Unfortunately, the Bulldogs limped through much of the 2013 season with a run of injuries that would rival any major college football program's single season injury record.  Nevertheless, on the second week of the season, Georgia provided me with a new standard for my college football tour.  Many thanks to Ron Wexler.  That was a trip worth the wait. 

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